Monday, August 13, 2012

An Honest Interlude

I’m going to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to be honest with all of you.  Not that I haven’t been honest up until this point, but I feel as if I’ve been very “everything is hunky dory!” since I’ve started this blog. 
And that’s simply not true.  Tonight, I feel plagued by privilege.
It will seem unrelated at first, but, as usual, I ask that you bare with me.

As of tonight, I have killed 31 spiders in my room since I moved in.  Thirty-one!  And that’s only the ones I noticed.  There are definitely three more within my sight right now that I just haven’t had the heart to smack mercilessly with the pair of shoes I’ve designated for killing all spiders (flat bottoms with no ridges, if you must know). 
At first, when it was only around fifteen spiders total stretched over the initial clean and the first two weeks, I thought:  “This is kind of funny!”  But tonight?  Upping my total by 7 in the last half hour?  Now I’m angry.  Honestly, I almost started crying.
And no.  It’s not because there are spiders in my room and I’m irrationally afraid of them.  Although that is true. 
I’m angry because I felt sorry for myself for living in these conditions.

I made myself sick just writing that sentence. 
I know life can seem to be all about context and perspective; and given that I’ve lived in a very clean and sterile environment for my entire life I shouldn’t be shocked that I’m responding this way to living in a room meant for storage that’s infested with all kinds of critters and bugs I can’t name. 
But here’s the thing. 
Fifty yards from where I comfortably lay my head down every night, a homeless couple climbs through a gash in the chain link fence on the opposite side of our street where they spend the night under a make-shift tent built of cardboard boxes and dirty old sheets.  I know because I’ve seen them.  I know because I stare every time we drive past and park our car just fifteen feet from their “home.”  I know because I feel guilty even sitting in a vehicle.  I know because I’m afraid to talk to them.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my heart is really heavy tonight with the realization of my own privilege.  Coming to Amate was, in part, about learning to live simply.  But my musty spider-strewn room feels like a palace.  Or at least it should.  Still, I’m struggling.  I’m feeling sorry for myself when really, I should be counting my blessings and trying harder to find ways to right the injustice of homelessness. 

Quite honestly, my own privilege breaks my heart.  And for me, I think that’s a good thing.  I want my heart to break the way God’s does when He sees the living conditions of so many neglected people.

But I don’t want to stop there.  I want that breaking to actually motivate me to do something other than sit in my warm, dry room typing on a $1,500 computer that I don’t even feel like I deserve.

Perhaps guilt or conviction (or whatever I choose to call this awful pressure-in-my-chest, lump-in-my-throat, stinging eyes feeling) isn’t what should motivate me to change and to do what I can to change this world. 

But I’ll take what I can get.

Because I need to change.

And I honestly believe the world needs me to change, too.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Play-by-Play of the First Week of My Journey

Hi again, everybody!

As of Sunday, I have been with my community for a full week!  How crazy is that?  Time is flying here, packed full morning to evening with intentional conversation, laughter, dreams, solemnities, and so much more.  Saturday was the first day we had off from our two-week orientation.  Some of my roommates went out to listen to Lollapalooza outside the gates, some went to the gym and took care of banking, one spent time with his girlfriend, another went to a wedding in Wisconsin.  Before beginning this post, I went to the library to get a library card with another roommate.  We each just took the day to rest and plug into our own interests and needs.  I think we all breathed a little sigh of relief when we realized we had Saturday free.
Before things get even crazier here, I want to take this opportunity to fill you in on what the first week has been like.  The first thing to note, however, is that I’ve only directly mentioned my blog to two roommates at this point, and I have yet to feel out how everyone individually feels about it.  So, for the time being, I’m going to try to write simply from my own experience and not to refer to anyone by name for the sake of their privacy.

This is going to be a doozy of a post because there’s much to tell.  Without further ado:
Tuesday, July 24th  -  Friday, July 27th
After an incredible sending-off meal at home Tuesday night (Dad and Mom made a traditional German meal of schnitzel and spaetzle!), I packed late into the night.  Wednesday morning, my mom and I packed the last few of my things into our family Suburban and got on the road by 8:20.  Our plan for the day was to drive about 7 hours to her parents’ house in Johnstown, PA to spend the night before continuing West towards Illinois.  When we arrived in Johnstown, we spent the day with my grandparents, great aunt and uncle, my Aunt Amy, Aunt Terri, Uncle Roger, and cousins Patrick, Abby, John, and Emily.  That time was especially wonderful for me because Abby (whom I often refer to as my soul sister because she’s one of those people I just connect with on a level much deeper than I can even understand or explain—a kindred spirit) is entering her two years of cloistered novitiate with the Sister Servants of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus today (August 4th).  When we had originally made our travel plans, it looked as if we would have just missed seeing one another, but once my mom and I re-arranged things, it all worked perfectly.  It was nothing short of a blessing to get to see her again, especially given that it will be at least two years until I see her next. 

Mom and I left the next day after lunch, this time heading about 4 hours to Madison, Ohio to stay the night with my Aunt Wendy, Uncle Wayne, cousins Joey and Sarah, and their crazy sweet labradoodle Zooey.  We went out to dinner with the family and then returned to their house where my mom showed them all of the pictures she and my dad took while in Rome and Assisi for their 25th wedding anniversary.  When my mom took a phone call after sharing pictures, I had a few minutes of wonderful conversation with my Aunt Wendy about the importance of making time to spend one-on-one with God every day.  Her words were both humbling and inspiring, especially as I consider how hard it has been to make that time here living under a fairly demanding schedule with eight other people.

Finally, on Friday, my mom and I drove the last 6 hours to Chicago.  We had a fun initiation to the traffic of Chicago shortly after entering the city.  With the GPS (which my mom calls Wanda) repeatedly declaring that we only had 10 miles to go, we spent about a half hour sitting in traffic just past the Skyway.  I was a jumbled combination of excited and anxious at this point, so I probably drove a little more aggressively than necessary at that point—sorry Mom! :)

We pulled up to my new home at around 3:30pm Chicago time, having completely forgotten about the time change until just a few moments before.  We were met on the sidewalk by one of last year’s volunteers from South House, who called my house coordinator and teased me about how much I brought (so much for living simply, huh?).  My mom and I got a tour of the house (although I had been there before and mostly was preoccupied with the following:  1.  Saying hello to my new housemates whom had already moved in that morning 2.  Trying to remember what they had shared about themselves in their e-mails and 3. Wondering if my room would be in the basement or on the second or third floors). 

I have to admit that, selfishly, I had been hoping not to be in the basement.  But, lo and behold, here I am now, writing this from what I have affectionately dubbed The Dungeon.  I actually don’t mind it so much because despite not having AC, it’s cooler than the first floor, and my room is fairly tiny, which is humbling and helps me to remember that many of my neighbors don’t even get one of these tiny rooms to themselves and that some of them don’t even have homes at all.  Not to mention, once I brought all of my things in and set them up, it’s actually pretty cozy!  I’ve grown accustomed to finding spiders in every nook and cranny and have begun tallying how many I’ve killed (16, plus some creepy centipede-like bug that crunched when I stepped on it.  Ew.).  I’ve found that keeping in good humor about everything that’s different from what I’m used to has been essential to not feeling overwhelmed right now.

After a few of my roommates helped bring everything in, my mom and I swept a little, rearranged the furniture, and made my bed.  My mom really wanted to do more to put together my room for me, but we decided rather to head out to find her hotel and get her checked in.  Before we left, we took a handful of pictures and had our picture taken on the front steps of my house by one of my roommates and his girlfriend who recently moved to Chicago.
From there, we checked into my mom’s hotel, scouted out a Wal-Mart to buy a few toiletries and the ingredients for cupcakes, and then set Wanda to lead us into The Loop so my mom could experience Millennium Park.  She got to see The Bean, a few outdoor art pieces affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago, and the amphitheater (which I still don’t know the name of).  Seeing as this was my mom’s first time in Chicago, I demanded that she try Chicago-style deep dish pizza, and dragged her a few blocks over to Giordano’s.  A family festival had just let out in Millennium Park, packing the place with parents and children and people of all ages.  We placed our order and then sat outside to talk for a while until we could be seated.  When we finally were seated, Mom and I waited for our food by watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics.  Try as we might, we could not figure out what those egg-shaped objects the ambassadors of sorts were carrying ahead of each team.  If you know, please comment, because I think I’ve thought about those odd things every day since last Friday.  I haven’t googled it because I’ve been trying to spend as little time on my computer as possible (says the girl writing a 5,000 word blog post…).

While we were out, those of my housemates that had already moved in texted me to see if I could or would join them for tango dancing at a studio one of my housemates (who is actually from Chicago) goes to regularly.  Mom and I decided to just head back to the hotel and sleep there for the night in the end seeing as dinner ended at what felt like 11pm for us.  I’m so very glad I had that time with my mom, too, before she began her two-day journey back to Chesapeake.  I do have to admit, though:  some of the stories that came out of that first night for my housemates are undeniably hilarious. 

Mom dropped me off at my house the next morning after we had an all-too-short Starbucks date.  I burned a few CDs for her for the road, and then she was off.  And so it began.

Saturday, July 28th
Wow—already struggling to remember this day.  Roommate 8 of 9 arrived that morning, and I committed to spending my time alternating between working on setting up my room further (hanging up clothes, arranging books, setting up surge protectors and lamps, etc.) and talking with my roommates.  Although, as I said, I’d been to this house before during my interviews, Saturday was the first day I really recognized just how nice our house is.  We have a little front yard, a somewhat larger back yard with tables and chairs, two grills (one gas, the other charcoal), five full bathrooms, ten rooms, a well-supplied kitchen and perishable-stocked pantry.  I quickly came to the realization that living simply in this house would be much more of a mindset until we’re committed to the food budget and our personal stipends.  Our neighborhood, however, though charming, is the kind of neighborhood you wouldn’t chance walking around alone in at night.  I don’t know that I’d even try doing so alone during the day.  As a matter of fact, we learned from some of the alums that we live right next to a dividing line between two gang territories (a story for another day, perhaps).

Seven of us spent the afternoon together on a wild ride out to the suburbs in our Windstar minivan, which we’ve named “The Housewife,” so one of my roommates could complete a craigslist deal for a road bike.  This trip made me realized just how funny all of my roommates are in their own way.  I laughed so much and so hard that first day—I even cried a few times from laughter.  Once the somewhat shady deal had been done with a guy who turned out to be a high school kid intent on scamming my roommate, we found a way to all fit in the car with a newly acquired rusted and run-down road bike.
That night we made and ate our first dinner together:  ribs.  (I should note that this is not typical fare for us.  We simply had a few items stocked in our freezer when we arrived.)  None of us had ever grilled ribs before, much less used a gas grill.  We plugged into our DSL and googled ourselves to a solution.  The roommate from Chicago and her mother brought us a bunch of groceries from her freezer, which had been left open during the night, causing everything to defrost.  We joked that we were going to start sneaking into peoples’ houses to “accidentally” leave their freezers open so that we could have food donated to us regularly all year.  A few of my roommates are absolute whizzes in the kitchen, and made the most delicious mustard-based marinade for the ribs.  In addition to the ribs, we had salad and green curry chicken.  We ate outside at the table in the backyard, and sat talking late into the night, long after having finished eating.

When finally we did go back inside, we played a round of Spoons (a card game), where I effectively established my house reputation as the Game Queen.  I don’t recall having been considered a card shark at any other point in my life, but I’m not complaining!  My roommates have jokingly told everyone from the other houses that they hate playing games with me because I always win.  Always being, you know…once.  :p

All in all, it was a wonderful night, and I remember climbing into my new bed that night excited to wake up and become even better friends with all of the wonderful people that had just stepped into my life.

Sunday, July 29th
The first thing on the agenda this morning was to pick up the last member of our new family, roommate #9, from the Greyhound Station.  She just finished a year as a volunteer with JVC, or the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, out in Los Angeles, so we were all eager to add all of her wisdom to our already fun and crazy group dynamic.  (As a sidenote, she and I get along really well because she has a duck obsession that equals if not surpasses my zebra obsession.  It’s love. :p)

Once we picked her up, we all got dressed for our Commissioning Mass.  We quickly discovered that our house is chock full of people with musical talents.  Six or so of us headed to the North House—which is connected to St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church—to run through all of the music before Mass.  I have rarely heard such sincerely beautiful voices in person as I did that day.  One girl from South House in particular has an angelic voice that I could only dream of having.
My favorite point(s) from the homily that day were these:
1.     We must begin by recognizing that we ARE God’s beloved—unconditionally so and by no merit of our own.
2.     Our mission this year is to begin to play our part in bringing about and furthering the Kingdom of God here on earth.
There were so many other beautiful messages and encouragements in the homily, but it’s already been a week and a day, so I’m having a difficult time remembering them.  It’s a shame, but that’s what I get for forgetting my notebook that day!
Mass ended with each of us being anointed by our respective house coordinators and receiving a blessing from the friends and family in attendance.  It was a really beautiful way to kick off our year.

After Mass, we had an opening barbecue, which was full of fellowship and delicious food.  We even got to tour the old convent North House is located in.  They have their own chapel!  I have to admit that I love Little Village the most out of the three houses, but the chapels in both the North and South Houses leave me a little green with envy.  Because, you know, that’s how chapels are supposed to make you feel… :p

I wish I remembered more of this day, but the evening has already faded from memory.  I drove that day, though!  I made my way back to our house by following memories of my Alternative Spring Break trip in March.  I’m a Chicago driving pro now. ;)

Monday, July 30th
Monday was Orientation Lite, in hindsight.  We began with morning prayer, led by Ali, our House Coordinator.  Generally the way morning prayer works is that we read the readings for the day (The Catholic Church designates three readings per weekday worldwide:  a passage usually taken from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and a passage from one of the four Gospels) and then someone takes the lead on sharing a reflection or a song or somehow else facilitating a morning dedication of the day to the One who brought us all together.

After morning prayer, two alums from Little Village 2011-2012 came by to give us an in-depth tour of our house/resources and neighborhood.  They were a wealth of knowledge and experience, and I’m so thankful that they took the time to acquaint us with the neighborhood and their favorite memories of living in Little Village.

We made lunch out of the previous day’s leftovers and then carpooled over to South House to learn how to keep track of our transportation (Cars, CTA, and bikes).  Essentially, we have a house stipend for travel to and from work.  Each car has a clipboard inside on which we track any changes in the odometer and the purpose of each trip out with a vehicle.  If we take a car out for personal use (gym, walmart, etc.), we’re responsible for paying 25 cents per mile out of our own individual stipend.  After learning how to manage the cars, a representative from the Archdiocese took scans of our fingerprints and we filled out a number of forms (for loan deferment, health insurance enrollment, and a waiver for a trip that Friday to a team building park).

That night two of my housemates made the first of three dinners I’ve had this past week with burritos as the entrée.  Everyone has been so great about accommodating my lactose intolerance.  I had really expected to have to eat around the dairy in meals each night, but so far everyone’s been mindful of each other’s dietary concerns.  It’s more than I could have asked for, really.

In fact, that night, we all decided to try out “Á Zucar”, a gelato shop that sells two scoops for $1.50.  I was able to purchase sorbet and be included in the delicious fun because one of my roommates graciously spoke with the store owner about dairy allergies to find out what other options he had available.  In many ways, my roommates are spoiling me rotten with their kindness.

The best parts about that day were:
1.  For a few days, one of our roommates had been living our of her suitcase because she was still waiting for her packages to arrive.  The packages had become a legend at this point as we all endlessly joked about the magical and absurd things we’d find in these elusive boxes if they were to ever arrive.  While most of our roommates watched the Olympics that night, I helped her unpack and made her bed for her.  We even scared one of our roommates half to death by bursting out from the inside of one of the boxes when he came in to say goodnight.
2.  Playing volleyball and Frisbee in McKinley Park just down the street from South House.

Tuesday, July 31st
Today’s topic was “Expectations.”  We met at the Meyer Center, a building owned and operated by the Archdiocese.  We were instructed to wear college t-shirts that day, so I had a lot of fun showing off my Virginia Tech gear and wondering where in the world all of these tiny little private colleges I’d never heard of were.  I think there’s one other person in our entire group of 33 that attended a state college like I did.

We began the morning with Morning Prayer led by one of the volunteers from South House.  He did a really beautiful reflection on the Gospel and then told a personal story about discernment while sharing “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise” by the Avett Brothers.  Everyone was thoroughly impressed, and I have to admit it made me really nervous about leading morning prayer the next morning!

We then broke into smaller groups to have a conversation about Intentionality, discussing opinions on three main subjects:  money, time, and alcohol.  We were numbered off into groups of three made up of one person from each house.  It was fascinating to me to hear what kinds of conversations and events had taken place in the houses so much larger than our own.

We then took our bag lunches out to the Lakefront and ate alongside the water.  Upon finishing eating, we took pictures, spelling out AMATE with our bodies.  They turned out pretty well!  You can find them on the Amate House facebook page if you’re curious seeing as I don’t have my own copy. :)

When we returned to the Meyer Center, we divided up into our individual houses and created a “Safe Space Sharing Covenant,” which is a list of guidelines for live-giving and respectful conversation within our home.  Our list (a work in progress) is as follows:
+  Try not to limit ourselves and each other with assumptions.
+  Be prudent.
+  Remain positive.
+  Be open-minded to others’ differences.
+  Be aware of each other’s needs.
+  Treat each other’s faults hopefully.
+  Recognize and balance different types of communication.
+  Have patience around our relational development.
+  Respect confidentiality.
+  Strive towards peace.
+  Don’t deny someone else’s reality.
+  Be courageous in vulnerability.

This was more or less my first introduction to the hopes and dreams and intentions of my roommates, and to say that I was impressed and inspired would be the greatest understatement of my experience thus far.  I really am living with some of the most beautiful people.  Even though I am one of this generation and comments of this sort usually come from people at least twice my age, my roommates give me hope for the future of our mad little world.

That day was made all the better when we were afforded the opportunity to meet with the three founders of Amate House:  John, John, and Ken.  Hopefully I will be able to share the founding story of our program sometime in the near future.  All three of the founders were so very wise and sincerely good souls.  They were so charming, humble, and eloquent and were careful to express their gratitude to the countless people who took their dream and made it a reality.  One of the founders even took us through an explication of the Our Father and encouraged us to mindfully pray it each morning as we walk into our individual service sites.  I hope to do just that!

We ended the evening with an incredible dinner prepared for us by the Amate House staff.
Today’s trivia:  Did you know my year with Amate House is the program’s 29th year? :)

Wednesday, August 1st 
Today was one of my roommates’ birthday!  He’s 23 now!  Before arriving, I had expected to be the youngest in the house, but I’m actually the second youngest in the house because one of my super-smart roommates skipped freshman year of high school.  (As a side note, I didn’t realize I had had so many expectations going in!  Whoops!)

We began this morning at DePaul University.  I was responsible for leading morning prayer, which ended up being much more of a struggle than I expected after having led faith sharing for a number of years now.  I was nervous about having all of my new peers’ eyes on me for a time, but I’m glad I challenged myself to do it.  I began by having three of my housemates read the readings for the day.  I then switched gears to the day’s focus:  building community.  I shared two quotes about community that I found by sifting through an archive online:
1.  “…a community needs a soul if it is to become a true home for human beings.  You, the people, must give it this soul.”  --  Blessed John Paul II
2.  “There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.”  -- M. Scott Peck

After the quotations, I read two excerpts from a retreat book on Ignatian spirituality called “Consoling the Heart of Jesus.”  The passages focus on the dignity and unique gifts of each and every person and our responsibility to treat them in such a way that promotes and affirms their worth and dignity.

Then, I pulled out my Hearth Stones.  Some of you already know about this practice of mine that I picked up from the Sisters of Mercy I worked with in Mississippi during an alternative spring break.  But for those of you who don’t know, Hearth Stones are little handcrafted clay hearts with a word engraved on them.  They feature words of “graces” such as peace, love, play, freedom, patience, etc.  Each day, I pull out a stone and try to be prayerful and mindful throughout the day about how God manifests that grace in my life, through others and/or through me.  We did this every morning in Mississippi.

For the purposes of morning prayer and its focus on building community, however, I had everyone draw out a stone, pass it to their left, and then pray for the person to their right to receive or make manifest the grace they had drawn.  Then I read the prayer I wrote:
My Dear Sweet Lord Jesus,
Thank You so much for this day!  Thank You for calling each of us to be here and be present to our vocation to love one another.  Lead us forward this day; show us what small merciful deeds we can enact in Your name as the Body of Christ to bring Your kingdom to fruition.  Help us to recognize the pearl of great price You have planted within each of our hearts.  Give us the grace to recognize and pray hopefully for the manifestation of each other’s unique gifts.  May we always remember that each person in this space has been endowed with a soul, a fragment of Your kingdom.  Guide us to piece ourselves together in such a way that our community becomes a living, breathing manifestation of Your love for the world, especially the poor and marginalized.  In Your name we pray.

Everyone then passed their Hearth Stones back and we began discussing the building blocks of community as well as sharing personal experiences of community (both good and bad) and what those experiences led us to believe about community.  We watched an interview with Diane Leafe Christian, the author of “Creating a Life Together:  Practical Tools to Grow an Intentional Community.”  Ms. Christian was well-versed in the art of community building.  She had done extensive research on communities while working for a magazine about the same topic, wherein she discovered the most important aspects for maintaining a successful intentional community:
1.  A common purpose/vision/goal
2.  Fair participatory decision-making method
3.  Equal access to power
4.  Training/balance of skills
5.  Clear agreements in writing
6.  Accountability

We created our own extensive list of aspects of a successful intentional community and actually managed between the 33 of us to come up with just about everything on Ms. Christian’s list and then some.

We then reflected on 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, recognizing the Spirit that binds us in our purpose despite our varied gifts and varied roles within a community.

After lunch on the grounds of DePaul, we did a short optional guided meditation, led by one of the house coordinators.  She aptly chose a meditation focused on journeys:  ending one and beginning another.  The air was fragrant with the laughter of summer camp children as we lay in the grass and reflected on where we’d been and where we were headed in our individual journeys.

Following that reflection, we reviewed the tenets of the Amate House Covenant:  Stewardship, Social Justice, Faith, Service, and Community.  In our House communities, we discussed which tenets we were most excited and anxious about.
That evening, after running through the format for Community Nights and House Meetings, we hosted a dinner for four Amate alums.  One of the alums was the same who had graciously guided me through my site interview process in May.  It was great to see her again before the city of Chicago reluctantly lets her go later this month.  We opened the floor to the alum to share their struggles, triumphs, memories, and wisdom about their year with Amate.  We learned so much and gleaned some really exciting ideas from their experience.  We enjoyed their company and conversation (and dessert!) so much we kept them late into the night.

You’ll have to forgive my necessary ambiguity, but that night, we experienced a disconcerting security issue that resulted in a giant house bonding sleepover on the second floor of our new home.  We all responded differently to the event, but when we all sat down to pray through our feelings, thoughts, emotions, fears, etc. I felt at home.  The incident only brought us closer together, and once again, I couldn’t help but acknowledge just how incredible my roommates are.  I’m blessed beyond belief.


For all of our sanity, I’m going to cut this post off here just so you guys have a sense of what all has been happening with me but don’t want to sue the Internet for allowing me to write so much your eyes start bleeding. ;)
Anyway!  I love all of you, and I hope to get a chance soon to fill you in on yet another week’s worth of Orientation and craziness here!

**Also, next time I update, check back to see the pictures I intend to add to this post! :)